String-Scraping Rock Stars Two Star Symphony

When the Rice University Theater kicks off its 2008-09 season with the multimedia laser light show production Synesthesia, Two Star Symphony, the local string quartet commissioned to compose and perform original music for the production, will be a long way from its humble beginnings.

"We actually started doing this to win free ice cream at the Oscar's Creamery open mike," reveals violinist Debra Brown. "Those were our first performances."

Now that's punk. So is the fact that Two Star cellist Margaret Lejeune has just taken the plumber's union test and hopes to be an apprentice soon ("until I can write film scores full time"), and that Brown works at West Alabama Ice House and Brown Bag Deli to subsidize her musical endeavors.

There's something refreshing — call it hip, even — about this neo-classical ensemble, whose members hail from the Ship Channel and Clear Lake areas. Two Star prides itself on being "poorly trained," but is equally proud to have been commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the University of Houston and Dominic Walsh Dance Theater.

The quartet is equally proud of sitting in with indie icon Daniel Johnston and local bad boys Sideshow Tramps. Last month's CD release show for Love & Other Demons packed Rudyard's to the gills. Essentially, Two Star is the Los Skarnales of the local classical scene.

At the Tasting Room on West Alabama, Synesthesia director Matthew Schlief recalls accidentally hearing a Two Star show at Catalina Coffee. He was struck by the quartet's visual possibilities.

"It's so hard to keep people's attention at the symphony," the native Houstonian Schlief explains like the Rice theater lecturer he is. "I think a lot of that is from the static nature of it, with the seats and the sheet music. That night, I realized they aren't bound by having to see the music, and that gives them a freedom of movement which makes them very interesting subjects to light."

"I'm actually a little worried about all the lights," interjects Brown. "Like I'm gonna get seasick or something, maybe fall down."

Earnest reassurances pour forth from Schlief.

"This project is so exciting if you're deeply involved with lighting like I am," he says. "We're only having three rehearsals, so we'll be lighting on the fly with some cutting-edge new technology. The fun part is we're all playing off and feeding off each other. The improv element is ever ­present."

Schlief's eyes glow with anticipation, like a man preparing to climb Mount Everest or K-2.

A few minutes ahead of schedule, former Houston Ballet principal dancer Dominic Walsh strides into the Tasting Room with a laptop and outline of his latest project, an original adaptation of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Lejeune, Brown and metal viola player Jo Bird all grab pen and paper like college students taking notes for a final exam. Andronicus will be Two Star's first full-length ballet.

As Lejeune recalls, Brown's friendship with ballerina/choreographer Paola Georgudis was the springboard to Two Star's collaboration with Walsh. Georgudis met the group at one Notsuoh show and immediately grasped its potential.

"I loved their edge and spirit," says the Chilean-born ballerina. "Dominic and I drove to Austin to see them, and we worked several projects together."

Georgudis describes Two Star as "flexible and intuitive," while Walsh, who grew up a punk-rock fan in Chicago, calls the foursome "phenomenal" and "professional."

Brown looks over.

"When we started this group, we were writing for fun," she says. "Now, before we finish one project, another is presented to us, so our songs come from this constant pressure to complete projects. And being this busy is good for us. It keeps us on our toes and keeps us writing." 

Two Star first violinist Jerry Ochoa missed this particular meeting. He was flying in from the Action on Film International Festival in Los Angeles, where his $65,000 guerilla action movie Hard Ball: All Balls Don't Bounce was nominated for four awards, including best score.

Ochoa began playing when he was three and studied at HSPVA, but he eventually burned out on the "competitive factor."

"I'm excited to see how the Rice theater department is going to visualize our music," he says over the phone a few days later. "Genevieve Durham, head of the dance department at Texas Tech, will be performing her original choreography, the light show is happening, we're playing live, so the whole thing is almost improvised, a kind of go-with-the-flow thing."

"[Ochoa] has more training than the rest of us," says Brown. "He's very much responsible for us becoming better players."

Brown, a metal aficionado whose only formal musical training is one year of violin in seventh grade in Clear Lake, smiles and confides that she's painted frets on her violin.

"I think it embarrasses Jerry sometimes," she says. "But honestly, I hadn't picked up an instrument in years until a friend just gave me one. For now at least, I need those painted frets."

So how does Two Star perform its own compositions and movie scores without charts?

Brown and Lejeune laugh. "Just like a rock band, we just rehearse it until we've got it," Brown says. "We rehearse all the time."

In fact, all of Two Star's members constantly stress how hard they work, and that their composing process is completely a group effort.

"Margaret and Jo both have new ideas constantly," says Brown. "They sketch out ideas and bring them in. Jerry is so technically good, he's great at working out transitions, helping tie things together."

Recorded at Sugar Hill with engineer Steve Christensen, Love & Other Demons — Two Star's third CD — is its most sophisticated. "[It's] our most cohesive recording yet," says Brown, who handles Two Star's merch sales "out of the trunk of my car."

"And we did it so quickly we met our budget," she adds. "We've already broken even."

"I'm still hearing new stuff every time I listen to it," beams Lejeune.

So what's it like to be untrained classical musicians working with a world-class heavyweight like Dominic Walsh, anyway?

"We love Dominic," says the cellist and future plumber/film-score composer. "He treats us like we're in the symphony."

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William Michael Smith